Logging onto the Internet today is a lot like waking up to find Bobby Ewing in your shower.
Fans of the 1980s prime-time soap opera Dallas will recall the memorable moment when scriptwriters revived a dead character by dismissing the previous year as the figment of another character’s imagination.
In a climactic shower scene Alfred Hitchcock would have approved of, the audience comes to the sudden realization that “it was all a dream.” Bobby never died; Pamela just dreamed it.
Is the same thing happening in travel? Are we being told that the last twelve months of trial-and-error on the Web-the sluggish graphics, the advertising copy, the distracting wallpaper was just a nightmare?
Maybe. Judged strictly by the number of Web relaunches, it seems the interactive revisionists are hard at work.
Amid the sea of news announcements about sites being overhauled with the latest bells and whistles, a recent blurb from Amtrak serves as an example of a reasoned relaunch. It deserves a closer look.
The national rail carrier intends to roll out a new site in mid-June with features that include interactive booking, a quicker design, and better presentation of schedules.
“No one here seemed to understand the medium of the Internet when we started, and I’m not sure that people still understand it,” admits Rob Borella, manager of corporate communications at Amtrak.
Borella concedes that the company made “lots of mistakes” when it sent its first pages into cyberspace. Indeed, the old site sported a plain gray background with full-color maps that took close to forever to download. It also lacked the interactivity that could have kept users coming back again and again.
“We got complaints that we were too text-heavy,” says Borella. “We got complaints that our graphics were too slow. People were coming to our site, but they weren’t staying.”
One lesson learned from his first eleven months online was how the Web differs from other media. “We realized that we needed someone who could care for, feed, and water the page, so to speak,” he says. “We couldn’t just leave it alone.”
And that someone, Amtrak quickly concluded, had to be in-house. So while it outsourced to a Web design firm for page-building services, it relied more heavily on an Amtrak employee, and will continue to do so.
The 1997 budget calls for a full-time Webmaster, which Borella hopes he’ll get approval for. Combined with the new design, he believes he’ll avoid getting derailed in cyberspace by hordes of hostile users.
Amtrak was correct to relaunch its site. When the content, format, and features change to such a large extent, press releases and other such fanfare are warranted. But when it’s just a matter of a few minor alterations, the guy to consult is Vince Gelormine.
“A relaunch is like a doctor treating the symptoms instead of the disease,” says Gelormine, director of business development at LinkStar Communications and author of a new book, Guerilla Web Strategies. “The disease, in my opinion, is lack of adequate promotions. It’s not enough to post an announcement on a few newsgroups and search engines.”
He points out that a travel site can be the best in the business, the most up-to-date, “but it doesn’t do you a damn bit of good if no one knows you’re there.”
“Don’t get me wrong-relaunching the site is usually a fine idea,” he adds. “But what’s the point if it’s not being read?”
Gelormine thinks a company should set aside half its total online budget for promotions when it ventures into cyberspace-a position that may be as controversial as the widespread practice of relaunching Web sites. If more people heeded his advice, maybe we’d see fewer-but more meaningful-relaunches, ones more deserving of coverage.